Can The Hundred save English cricket? Not if Kohli can help it
A few years ago Virat Kohli was a pantomime villain, at least outside India. For many fans, young Kohli was so petulant and obnoxious that in their imaginations he spent his free time flipping off small children and shoving plastic straws directly into sea turtles' throats. Grown-up Kohli, though, has picked up new skills, new shots, new sponsors, the India captaincy, and hundreds of millions of fans. He has won entire nations over. And yet, for all his previous successes, it was in this past month that Kohli developed something truly special. It was through the course of the first three gruelling Tests in England that Kohli, with his alluring mix of outrageous talent and peerless drive, perfected the ability to insert himself into each and every single damned cricket story and headline on the planet, including, obviously, this one.
There was a Kohli narrative to suit absolutely everyone this month. Does his batting make you swoon? Well, his 200 runs in the first Test sure did prove he is incredible across all conditions, didn't it? Are you a hater? For you, there are stats floating around about how he has played and missed constantly through the series, the undeserving git. Or do you take the view that although he is a great batsman, the iron grip he has on his side is suffocating team-mates? Oh, the Lord's Test definitely showcased how crippled his team is. Or maybe you think he is god's gift to captaincy - how about that lead-from-the-front masterclass at Trent Bridge? Wowzers! All this plus a mic-drop retort to Joe Root that was either blindingly badass or profoundly pathetic; his handing over of a celebratory bottle of champagne to Ravi Shastri, which either displayed his gratitude and humility or illustrated their utterly strange captain-coach dynamic, and in turn the terrible cult of celebrity and everything else that is wrong with Indian cricket; and also his aggressive wicket celebrations, which were either gloriously inspiring or astonishingly arrogant.
Whatever your thoughts on the man, wherever you hail from in the cricketing universe, we have seen and heard and thought of Kohli so incessantly over the past month that we can more easily bring his face to mind than the image of our own mothers.
Seemingly the only place in the cricketing universe that Kohli's name was not mentioned in August was in Bristol Crown Court, where Ben Stokes was eventually found not guilty of affray. There was, however, one other cricketer whose name did come up during proceedings. As part of the defence, the lawyer representing Stokes told the court that although it had been Stokes who seemed to punch another man's lights out, it could have been team-mate Alex Hales who inflicted a fractured eye socket upon this person, maybe with a kick to the head. Hales' name was dragged into it despite the fact that he was repeatedly heard asking Stokes to stop fighting in footage of the incident. Essentially this was the cricketing equivalent of calling a team-mate through for a single, realising halfway that someone was going to be run out, deciding that it is your wicket the opposition really wants, and deciding to scamper back to the safety of your crease to leave your team-mate stranded.
Which brings us back…
…to Kohli, who pulled pretty much that exact manoeuvre, abandoning Cheteshwar Pujara in the middle of the pitch in the first innings of the Lord's Test.
Is English cricket in trouble?
For much of this year the ECB has been telling us the game's popularity is in sharp decline in their country, providing depressing survey figures and terrible participation numbers, before finally lowering themselves to a public, sobbing plea of desperation for attention, by which I mean their announcement of The Hundred. But is it possible the board has a point? According to evidence heard by that Bristol court, the participants in a street brawl featuring actual international cricketers who had spectacularly won a match only hours before, were described by an eyewitness as being "like football hooligans". Surely this cannot be tolerated. Something has to be done. The Hundred might not be the answer, but somewhere out there, there is a way to ensure that future generations of cricketing streetfighters will at the very least be given the basic human dignity of having the correct sport credited in their public brawls.
But before we go any further, let's check back in with Kohli about what he thinks about a new format. When asked by Wisden Cricket Monthly about The Hundred this month, Kohli replied that he didn't "want to be someone who's going to be part of that World XI who comes and launches the 100-ball format" in England. Well, that's it, I guess. Hundred-ball cricket is done for. Time to shut it down, ECB. Knew we could count on you, Virat.
With Kohli pretty much running the show in the India team, many have wondered about "coach" Ravi Shastri's role. What does he do exactly? Not helping him out this month were the TV cameras at Edgbaston, which caught him snoozing during an important period of play on the very first day of India's biggest Test series of the year.
News from the Caribbean Premier League is that Steven Smith has rebuilt his bowling action, basing it on that of Shahid Afridi, who Smith feels had good momentum into the crease. But upon closer inspection, is a bowling action the only thing these men have shared?
Think about it. Both Smith and Afridi had captaincy stints end badly. Both players have had serious brushes with ball-tampering. Both had to make comebacks into the game - Afridi after each of his "retirements", and Smith after being initially picked primarily as a legspinner before making it back on the strength of his batting. In fact, not only has Smith been Australia's Afridi, he's actually been out Afridi-ing Afridi for ages.
Afridi only got a brief ban for tampering, for example, whereas Smith got a whole year. Afridi might have gained a reputation for shining in his comeback matches, but Smith became arguably the best player in the world upon his return. And where the filthy hoick across the line was merely Afridi's signature shot, Smith's entire batting repertoire is an abomination to cricket's traditions. In one of his recent matches for Barbados Tridents, Smith also managed to be both caught at long-on and hit-wicket off the same delivery, which is the most Afridi dismissal conceivable. Maybe Smith isn't copying Afridi, he is embracing destiny - Afridi was a beta version of him.
Next month on The Briefing:
- Steve Smith announces retirement from cricket during CPL, un-retires an hour later, and in the next match fires bazooka into the air in celebration after smashing a double-hundred and taking all ten opposition wickets.
- The Ravi Shastri seen in India's dressing room revealed to have been a giant soft toy all along, with string in back that can be pulled to make it say nice things about Kohli in press conferences.